It would be an understatement to say that I hate my birthday:
And, no, I don’t go into December determined to make this The Worst Birthday Ever. I’m like Charlie Brown, who believes just enough that Lucy won’t pull the football away, to attempt to kick it. Being adopted, I was chosen and special. Chosen, special people have happy birthdays, right? Somehow this has consistently eluded me, but not for lack of wishing for it.
The week before Christmas, when this forgettable anniversary happens, the feeling like my heart is being slowly ripped out of my chest begins. I know the outcome is a crapshoot, even if I plan everything myself, pay for everything myself. I usually pre-empt any plans that could fall through and instead do things that cannot fail: Christmas shopping, working, heading the children’s program at church. Anything that cannot disappoint because it’s not about me.
If I could just turn off my ability to care, I would. If I could completely ignore it, I would. But as with Christmas, the presumption is there to BE HAPPY. For adoptees, it’s not just “Happy birthday,” it’s “Be happy you’re alive!” It’s a very real expectation. A demand, once again, to feel a certain way based on others’ comfort.
“Look at it this way, Noelle. You’re not dead.” This is what my adoptive aunt, my maternal stand-in, said to me on my 30th birthday. For those who do not know, this is an example of Nordic cheer. The decade birthdays are most recognized with Scandinavians, except for mine, because of a little holiday called Christmas.
I didn’t have a 30th birthday party. Or a 40th. Or a 50th. Or anything between. For my 50th, all I wanted was to go away somewhere. I dreamed of Europe. Spending my birthday and Christmas in Paris. That was, of course, just a dream. Then I envisioned sunny San Diego, which turned out to be as unreachable as France. I finally downsized my wish to going to a local bed-and-breakfast, just for my birthday. One day. One stinking day.
Didn’t happen. Neither did the party my sister-cousins insisted they wanted to throw me. Besides the predicted overloaded social calendar, a nasty virus was going around. I spent “my” day visiting a relative in the hospital. Most forgot it completely, even my birth mother. She called at 10:00 that night at the prompting of my younger sister, who only knew because she saw a mention of it on social network.
But this was not the worst birthday. Not by a long shot. That prize goes to my fifteenth.
“The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.” ~unknown
By the time I was fourteen, I had lost two mothers, but was only allowed to cry for the second. I did not know the first, so wasn’t supposed to grieve. I was, however, expected to openly display my anguish over the loss of my adoptive mother; in a restrained, quiet manner. Maybe people thought that’s what I was doing, but in reality I was glad she was finally free. I would always miss her, but had grieved for her three years already.
As my birthday and the holiday season approached, a gnawing restlessness began inside me. New to high school, I did not as yet have many extra-curricular activities, couldn’t drive, and couldn’t have a real job. For the most part, when I was home, I was alone. Dad was either at work or in his shop. My older adopted brothers, who had cars, were there only haphazardly. Dad’s brother who lived with us — already a shadow of his former self — became even more withdrawn and hardly left his room. And my mother’s nurse, of course, left when Mom died.
I cannot adequately describe how alone I felt. As an introvert I need solitude, but this was not solitude. This was emptiness, isolation, abandonment. I remember the days and nights being black as ink and never seemed to end. We went through the motions and felt nothing.
I had an altercation with Dad after telling him I wanted to find my birth mother, and he said the famous words, “If we hadn’t gotten you, someone else would have!” I never mentioned it again. On my birthday itself, he put a candle in my baked potato and handed me some cash, which I spent on Christmas gifts. Dad dropped me off at the mall, where I searched for the perfect thing for others, using my birthday money. It honestly never occurred to me to do anything else. I knew I was just a conduit. Only real people had birthdays, and spent money on themselves. I looked at them, the real people, there at the mall, like I was walking through a movie set. Only the movie was real and I was fake.
From an early age, I had experienced small psychic happenings. Knowing when the phone was about to ring, and who it was — that sort of thing. But that December, I felt I would receive a message from my birth mother, via the newspaper. I knew it was crazy, but the feeling was so strong I couldn’t ignore it. I scanned the personal ads every day, starting a week before my birthday, up to Christmas Day. I looked for a hidden message, a code, some reference to a baby girl relinquished fifteen years prior. And every day, I was crushed when I found nothing.
This is when I first seriously considered suicide. The pain of simply being overwhelmed me. I needed that proof of existence. I needed that connection. But I didn’t find it.
This is what I was looking for:
I don’t know why God did not allow me to see it then, when I needed it most. Maybe that only happens to real people.
Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread